Ari Kiener was MinnCAN’s public affairs manager from 2013-2016.

Last month, we visited Viking Elementary in Pelican Rapids—and not just to see Pelican Pete! A preK-6 “focus” school in 2012-13, Viking has made swift changes in recent years to increase student achievement, prompting the Minnesota Department of Education to remove its focus label. Because many of Viking’s most impressive reforms have been in the preK-3 space, we decided to check the school out for our upcoming report.

After a morning with educators and school leaders, we found that a few of Viking’s biggest strengths are:

  • Family engagement: Viking hosts the district preschool, as well as the local Head Start program, which means that 95 percent of the school’s kindergarteners attend pre-K in the Viking school building. It’s therefore critical that both programs make families—nearly 40 percent of whom are immigrants—feel welcome in the school. “We want people to feel comfortable coming in to the school, so they’ll know that this is a place that wants them here,” said district pre-K teacher Terra Fitzsimmons. To make families’ transition into kindergarten more seamless, and also to “blur lines” between the two programs, Head Start and the district pre-K have started hosting joint parent nights. Viking Principal Sheila Flatau is also proud of the school’s efforts to better communicate with families all the way through grade six. With a Latino parent liaison—who is himself a graduate of Pelican Rapids public schools—translators at school events, and a packed annual “family fun festival,” Sheila and her staff are excited about the progress they’re making to engage more families. “We’ve come a long way,” said kindergarten teacher Cindi Strand, who—born and raised in Pelican Rapids—has witnessed the school’s transformation. Still, Sheila readily admits that she’d like to have the community’s diversity better represented on staff, and Superintendent Deb Wanek hopes to hire more “home-grown” educators like the parent liaison.
  • School culture: Sheila and her team work hard to create a school culture that is not only welcoming to families, but also nurturing to each and every student. “We get complimented a lot on how positive the environment is,” Sheila explained. Pelican educators attribute much of this positivity to “The Leader in Me” curriculum they adopted two years ago, at Deb’s urging. The program’s “seven habits”—which stress creativity, leadership, responsibility and more—can be found throughout the school, and teachers have also worked to weave more leadership opportunities into the school day, from classroom lessons to school assemblies. “The idea is that everyone is a leader,” Sheila continued. The emphasis on school community is perhaps most evident in Viking’s approach to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments: sections of kindergarten, first- and second-grade “adopt” older classes during testing season—decorating their classrooms and cheering for them as they arrive on testing days. This not only makes kids preparing for the MCAs feel more supported (“Wow! We’re a pretty big deal,” one student told third-grade teacher Tanya Johnson), but also gets K-2 students excited about assessments.
  • Collaboration, alignment and interventions: The focus label—and the resources that come with it, including support from the Regional Center of Excellence—set in motion a series of important changes at Viking. To improve student achievement and MCA scores, Viking started focusing much more on the years leading up to third grade, which is when kids first take the MCAs. To see results in third grade and beyond, “You have to start way back,” Cindi explained. And, according to Sheila, you also have to increase transparency and communication. To that end, preK-3 teachers have started posting their classroom goals and standards in a Google Doc that is available to teachers and parents. Teachers have also received significant instructional coaching, on everything from data literacy to teacher-child interaction training. Sheila has invested, too, in improving interventions, and has set aside thirty minutes each for daily math and reading interventions. Every student at Viking receives interventions, and teachers assess data once a month to adjust intervention groups, if needed. Viking teachers have “always been good communicators,” Sheila explained, but now, with more structure and intention, they’re better able to collaborate and track student performance. “We feel like we know our kids better than ever,” many teachers have started telling Sheila. “I personally feel a lot more confident in my teaching and what my students know,” Tanya confirmed.

Although Viking has made great progress towards closing its achievement gaps (preliminary MCA data for spring 2014 was very encouraging!) and has been removed from the state’s focus school list, Sheila knows that there’s much more work to do. “It’s never done,” she explained. But if the school’s recent, rapid changes and the dedication of its teachers are any indication, we suspect to see even more growth at Viking in the years to come.

Learn more about Viking Elementary in our preK-3 report this fall!


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